30th July 2020

Steve Hewlett on Ken Dodd

On the 11th March 2018 another pioneer of post-war Light Entertainment was taken from us leaving a whole legacy of laughter in his wake. Born in Knotty Ash on the 8th November 1927, Sir Kenneth Arthur Dodd enjoyed a Christian upbringing surrounded by loving parents Arthur and Sarah. He attended the small Knotty Ash school where he was encouraged to join the church choir which saw the young Ken perform to an audience for the very first time. Passing his eleven plus, Ken attended grammar school until the age of fourteen when he was offered a position alongside his father at the local coal merchants. This coincided with an epiphany to enter into the world of entertainment and he spent the next few years trying to find a way into the business he loved. Making his professional debut at the Nottingham Empire in September 1954 as his long term alias Professor Chucklebutty; operatic tenor and sausage knotter, Ken was an overnight hit with theatre audiences and it wasn’t long before the relatively new medium of television came calling.

 Liverpool in the fifties was an altogether different city than the one which emerged less than a decade later. Still not able to catch on to the art of television, comics on the variety circuit were continuing to survive on just one act throughout their whole career. Having such a passion for language and laughter, this wasn’t enough for Ken and he made a conscious effort to make each and every show different from the last. This love of language cut very deep for him and not only was he a great comic but also an academic of comedy. He needed to understand the science behind laughter in order to make sense of the job he was doing and would often be found at Liverpool Central Library asking himself such things as what is a laugh? What is a joke? Why do humans have the ability to laugh? It was only here that he could have a better understanding of his own material. His association with the library was recognised promptly after his death when a sculpture of his headshot was unveiled by his widow Ann in November 2018.

 In 1959 Ken secured his own self titled comedy series on the BBC which reigned the airways for over a decade and helped the BBC create a variety format which in time would rival the heavyweight Sunday Night at the Palladium. This was the first outlet for one of his most popular and enduring comic creations. Believed to be part of Liverpudlian folklore, The Diddymen from Knotty Ash became a unique comedy tool and were a vital staple of every Ken Dodd show. Described by him as almost mythical creatures, for over half a century the king of Knotty Ash regularly reinvented this device for new generations and audiences and it never got old or outdated. What started as a tribute to his working class roots  eventually became a visual trademark to his unique brand of comedy.

 The phenomenon of Beatlemania during the early sixties enhanced the careers of many entertainers from the area. Suddenly Liverpool was the cultural capital of the world and anyone with any scouse connections was definitely hot property.  In 1963 Dodd interviewed the Fab Four for the BBC Radio programme The Ken Dodd Show and then for a magazine show on Granada Television in which Dodd appears further up the bill than them. Unphased by the glamour of fame, Ken maintained a conservative attitude to his popularity and refused to ever discuss his private life on radio or television. To him, the Ken Dodd which audiences saw in theatres and television screens was owned by the public which meant his private life could be just that. Even with the influx of hard hitting styles of interviewing which has come to prominence in recent years, Ken was always very clear about what he was prepared to share with the public.

Yet this sensitive and emotional side of Ken was channeled through his successful singing career which became another string to his bow. The 1965 hit Tears gave Ken his one and only official Number One hit record which he kept in his act for the rest of his career. He then followed this up with a cover of Kate Emily-Barkley’s The Floral Dance which was later a bigger hit for Terry Wogan. Surprisingly these aren’t the songs which he became synonymous with. Originally a hit for American crooner Bill Anderson in 1963, Happiness became Ken Dodd’s shorthand and there was never a gig where he wouldn’t start and finish with this iconic song. Equipped with two rainbow coloured feather dusters, or tickling sticks to give them their proper name, Ken was ready to entertain audiences up and down the land.

To see Ken Dodd in full command of a live audience was something to admire. The length of his shows which have now gone down in comedy folklore was testament to his ability as a performer. Loaded with an encyclopaedia of one liners, Ken was able to span a whole range of different subjects within the same routine without the audience ever getting lost or bored. His material was frequently balanced vicariously on the fine line between smut and decency yet because of his joyful spirit and jester like image, decorum was never questioned.

Despite having such a strict attitude on the disclosure of his private life, in 1989 Dodd was charged with tax evasion. Unlike other high profile celebrities, Ken was never embarrassed to talk about it and would frequently make light of the situation within his act. Whenever he mentioned getting a tax rebate, it was always met with sarcastic cheers followed by a considerable amount of laughter. It became a national running joke and even his fellow comedians got in on the act. Never before or since has a serious national news story been allowed to be the subject of a long running joke which spanned three decades.

Acquitted from tax evasion, Ken was slowly becoming an elder statesmen of Comedy. His regular appearances on The Royal Variety Performance was able to keep him in the public psyche and allowed him to mix with the upcoming comics of the day. Everyone from Michael Barrymore to Brian Conley benefited from his wisdom and experience and he always had time for young performers. A favourite of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, Ken frequently held top of the bill and would insist on overrunning by at least ten to fifteen minutes. Again he was equipped with the charm and wisdom to get away with anything!

In 1994 London Weekend Television put him forward to be the subject of An Audience With… something which he was born to do. Over the course of an hour, Ken entertained a studio full of stars with his unique brand of comedy, ventriloquism and music proving that he could still put on a show. By popular demand, ITV commissioned Another Audience With Ken Dodd which aired in 2002 which saw another group of celebrities marvel at his many talents. Sadly this was his last major television vehicle but his theatre tours were still thriving. The Ken Dodd Happiness Tour scaled the UK for several years with little breaks. It was clear that he was at home in the theatre and ticket sales reflected this. His last ever gig was suitably at the Nottingham Empire in November 2017, sixty three years after the first: the perfect end to a glittering career in Comedy. 

Ken Dodd’s death in March 2018 possibly marked the end of an era for full on theatrical Variety. Yet by the way he is fondly remembered by the whole showbiz firminent, he may be gone but never forgotten. It was great to speak to the great Steve Hewlett about his comedy hero Ken Dodd and may his legacy last forever.

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